About Green Haven Living – An Herbalist’s Journey

Origins of a Clinical Herbalist

I have always been drawn to plants, ever since I was a little girl growing up in Western Pennsylvania. Mom’s family were farmers originally from Austria and, well, everybody had a vegetable garden back in those days. I have many fond memories of walking through the woods with my dear Aunt Aggie, who always seemed a wealth of knowledge about the plants we saw along the way. I was mesmerized.  Perhaps the seed to becoming a clinical herbalist was planted so long ago!

Fast forward a few (hah!) years, two degrees in Mechanical Engineering, and a successful career in the Defense industry. It wasn’t until these things were settled and I’d moved into a home of my own that I was drawn back to the plants. It started with vegetable gardening, which is a tale that’s best told by a post I wrote on the University of Maryland’s Grow It Eat It blog. In short, in addition to enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my labor, growing vegetables brought me back to a time of fond memories of family long past.

Clinical herbalist Donna Koczaja hiding in Chaste Tree

Becoming a Master Gardener

In 2008 my hunger for knowledge and a better outcome in the garden led me to become a Maryland Master Gardener. An added bonus was that my husband also took interest and we began the journey together. We enjoyed the program so much that, in 2011, we jointly earned the Prince George’s County Master Gardener of the Year award for our educational outreach in support of the Grow It Eat It program.

It was about this time that my ‘day job’ began to get more and more stressful. The economy was not good, and finding another job wasn’t really an option at the time. I began to look for other outlets to relieve stress outside the workplace. I found the Tai Sophia Institute (now Maryland University of Integrative Health), which was near my office and was offering evening yoga classes. I registered for the 10-week series, in which I experienced the benefits of yoga while being exposed to the academic offerings of the school.

Clinical herbalist Donna Koczaja in vegetable garden

Initial call of the herbs

One such offering was a Post-Bachelor’s certificate in Herbal Studies. In addition to my interest in growing vegetables, as I was aging I also developed a keen interest in personal well-being and self-sufficiency. The idea of using plants as medicine intrigued me.  With the encouragement of my husband and a life coach I was working with at the time, I enrolled.

The program, which I soon learned was about far more than ‘this herb for that ailment’, was nothing short of life-changing. A whole, new world of what it means to be well and how to embody that in my everyday life was opened up to me. To help others heal, I had to learn how to make better choices for the sake of my own physical, mental, and emotional well-being – as well as for the sake of those I encountered. Of course, I began to unlock the healing power of the herbs, too.

The Herbal Studies program was just the tip of this iceberg. I found myself needing to continue my studies in the Master of Science in Therapeutic Herbalism program, along with a Clinical rotation. By this time I knew I wanted to become a Clinical Herbalist to help people benefit from the power of herbal medicine, the way it benefited me.

Clinical herbalist Donna Koczaja admiring echinacea flowers

Becoming a Clinical Herbalist

The next few years continued to be transformative, with classes in ‘Becoming a Healing Presence’ and ‘Herbal Therapeutics’, as well as the more scientific-leaning courses such as plant pharmacology and human physiology. We even took a weekend long camping trip to southeastern Ohio to one of the most incredible sanctuaries of medicinal herbs in the country. I was brave in this being my very first camping trip ever (I pitched my own tent!), but I thought it was an important aspect of my education to experience the herbs in their natural environment. Indeed, being right in the middle of a field of the endangered goldenseal was truly awe-inspiring.

Goldenseal patch

Being a Registered Herbalist

The strength of the Therapeutic Herbalism program, I found, was that it married both the science and the art of herbal medicine.  As a scientifically trained engineer the former was imperative, while the latter provided the context that we are all individual, whole, human beings, each with unique gifts and challenges. Each side comes with its pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses. I learned how incorporating both into my practice can yield results far greater than either individual approach.

In June 2018 I earned the distinction of ‘Registered Herbalist’ as defined and bestowed by the American Herbalists’ Guild. Today I continue to practice as a holistic Clinical Herbalist, where I regularly see clients who come to me with wide-ranging health-related challenges and for a variety of personal reasons.  I am continually humbled by the progress that they make – not only by incorporating these plant healers into their routine, but also by learning to make better choices in what they eat and how they live.  They are the ones doing the work to make for a better life, and I am honored to be along as their herbalist, educator, guide, and partner.

Clinical herbalist Donna Koczaja measuring herbs

It is for each of you that I practice Clinical Herbal Medicine.

Herbalist Oath Candles

Clinical Herbalist’s Oath: Through self-exploration and growth I will strive to become a catalyst for positive change. I will honor the innate wisdom of the natural world and walk in partnership with other living beings.